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Pedaling Around the 49th Parallel:
Riding the International Selkirk Loop on a Tandem
Text and Photos by Alice Owen
"It's been the wettest September on record," we were told gleefully as we set off. It had been a glorious summer on the west coast, but those cloudless skies had given way to sheeting rain. The tandem panniers were heavy with extra waterproofs, arm warmers, knee warmers and windproof jackets.
The helpful weather reporter was Bob Wright, proprietor of Wright Wheels, a company just completing its first successful season helping cyclists of all inclinations get round the International Selkirk Loop, a route which follows the steep-sided lake valleys of the Western Kootenays, about 350 miles east of Vancouver, and goes south of the 49th parallel into rural Washington state and east into the Idaho panhandle. The main loop is about 300 miles long with various side trips that can be added. We would be following the "silvery Slocan" side trip towards the end of our route giving us 375 miles to cover in six days.
From Nelson, an arty town filled with heritage buildings, we immediately had to climb 1200 feet over about four miles. We were heading south to the US border. Half way through our first day, the expression on our faces made the US customs official laugh. We were sheltering under the roof of the border post and watching the rain bounce of the smooth American tarmac. It seemed to bounce higher than it had done on Canadian tarmac.
We were touring independent of a group because of the way we ride our tandem. A tandem can steam along on the flat, and it can hurtle down hills at terrifying speed, but it slows to a snail's pace as soon as the slightest uphill gradient is reached, clicking down through all the gears. I was also four months pregnant and we weren't sure how that would affect our riding. Best for us to adventure alone so no one else would be witness to the arguments, tears or near-death experiences.
The next day the weather had cleared and we saw no more rain in the rest of the week. The convoluted hill shapes and long valleys with gentle gradients and wide, slow-flowing rivers made it impossible to tell if we were cycling up or down stream (photo). Was the road stretching ahead a grinding climb or a gentle descent? It was only when we arrived at a hydroelectric dam that the position of the turbines on one side or the other gave us a clue. There are plenty of such dams, most dating back to the 50s and 60s, ugly hulks of concrete by hamlets named after the tumbling waterfalls that were there before, like Metaline Falls and Albeni Falls.
This area of rural Washington is very proud to be American, flags flutter from every trailer and bungalow. Mongrel dogs on thick chains stop barking at the flags to bark and try to chase us as we pass. Every vehicle is a truck, most are rusting. In Canada, as in Europe, the eccentricity of the tandem is a cause for friendliness, curiosity and gentle ridicule. I have learned to look amused through my heaving gasps when someone in a car or on a sidewalk yells "She's not pedaling on the back, you know" as we toil past. Maybe I'm paranoid, but in NE Washington, it felt that our non-conformism was best ignored, or, worse, was seen as a sign of dangerous radical thought (photo).
Just over the border into Idaho, in friendly Priests River, along Highway 2, we eat in a roomy restaurant near the Pend Oreille River, with a good view of the railways tracks and the timber yard. Lumber is the big business round these parts. Several mile-long trains trundled past us, set high up alongside the roads. In Canada, logging trucks roared past, giving us as much space as they could given their huge size and the narrowness of the roads, each with a strip of pick or orange tape fluttering at us from end of the longest tree trunk loaded on the back. Most days on the Loop, the smell of pine, or cedar, or fresh woodchip, floated in and out of reach.
The only problem with tandem touring on generally gentle gradients is saddle soreness. On a tandem, getting out of the saddle is difficult. It's not impossible, but it needs practice, and both cyclists need to be similar in strength and ability. We tend to sit in the saddle most of the time. It's also difficult to change position in the saddle while pedaling. Gentle gradients give little opportunity for freewheeling, which is when you can stretch and shift your weight. After the first couple of days, even the most comfortable of saddles have abrasion points!
Sandpoint is home to the only stretch of dedicated cycle path we ride all week (photo). We visit the beach and see water-ski boats, sunk by last week's rain, being towed across the bay. At Bonners Ferry, on a Sunday afternoon, everything is shut apart from the Panhandle restaurant where we eat fruit pie and phone ahead to our motel, a few kilometers ahead, at the top of a long hill and a busy highway.
The receptionist at the motel is nonplussed when I ask her for advice about dinner. We already knew that there wasn't a restaurant at the top of the hill. I fished for a lift, or a recommendation.
"Well, there's the truck stop, she says, hesitantly. I ask what people do to eat when they stay with them. "People bring their own vehicles," she tells me as if instructing a particularly stupid child. With help from the Panhandle Restaurant waitress who is now full engaged in solving our problem, we get a room in the nearby Best Western at a knock down price. It's at the bottom of the hill, with its own restaurant--and a casino. The car park is full of RVs and coaches but the hotel staff barely seem to notice our own mode of transport, simply giving us a huge ground floor room so we can wheel the bike in rather than trying to find a lock up.
The pace of cycling is well suited to noting the daily changes in leaf color in September and October. As we crossed back over from Idaho to British Columbia at the Porthill border crossing, the sun came out and the scenery could have been Switzerland (photo). Light snow had just arrived to dust the tops of the hills either side of the lake--the eponymous Selkirks--and our German hosts at the Kootenay Lake Lodge reinforced the alpine feeling (photo).
From there we rolled north for two days, keeping Kootenay Lake on our left, then taking the free ferry across to Balfour and keeping the lake on our right all the way up to Kaslo, a pretty lakeside village where, to judge from our limited café sample, people meet their therapists in public places to conduct their analysis sessions.
The rolling road had given us opportunity to ease our butts, and the tandem had reached more than 45 mph on some of the descents. All "tandemmers" have stories involving dramatic brake failure (and chain failure, but that's another story). Ours include melting our caliper brake blocks on a steep descent in the north of England and a heating up hydraulic brake fluid so much that it smokes. In addition to our front caliper brakes and rear Avid disk brakes, I have a rear V-brake to apply when I'm told to, but on this trip it was only used for parking.
At Kaslo we turned west, heading for New Denver via a road which climbed gently but unrelentingly for 15 miles. Just starting to descend on the other side, we screeched to a halt. Oblivious to us, a black bear was foraging in the roadside undergrowth about 50 yards ahead. Guidebooks are full of information about how to react if you're hiking and you meet a bear, but the etiquette for cyclists is much less clear. Our reaction was obvious. I got off the back of the tandem, found the camera and took some photos. The bear scented us, a miracle it hadn't done so before given the aromatic nature of the Lycra we'd been sweating in for the past five days, but a bear's eyesight is poor and it clearly couldn't work us out. A car came past, the bear stayed put. After a couple of minutes a logging truck came the opposite way and sized up our dilemma. A loud blast of the truck's horn sent the bear into the bushes and we carried on, waving thanks to the grinning driver.
Our last day was a test of endurance--scenting the end of the ride, we wanted to be there (photo). Nelson was a good place to end up, large enough to have decent hotels, plenty of cafes, a counterculture feel, two bike shops and excellent restaurants for cycle tourists to go against the Atkins diet!
While perhaps not a cycle tourist's very first choice for experiencing Canada or the US, the Selkirk Loop does provide some great cycling and gives you a sense of discovery that you can only do when taking the smaller routes, which you have no reason to take save curiosity. Just make sure that you bring plenty of your lubricant of choice to deal with the saddle soreness.
For more about the International Selkirk route, visit www.selkirkloop.org or call 1-888-823-2626
Cycle touring support, routes, bikes, guiding (or maps) provided by Bob Wright at Wright Wheels (www.biketoursbc.ca), 516 Cottonwood Street, Nelson BC Canada V1L 3V6, tel. 250-352-9236. Email email@example.com.
The Selkirk Loop office can provide accommodation information. Wright Wheels organized all our reservations, but we particularly enjoyed the Kootenay Lake Lodge (www.kootenaylakelodge.com/home.html).
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